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Legends: Orson Welles


Legends: Orson Welles

Cinema’s tragic hero. The enfant terrible whose first film, Citizen Kane, is often voted the greatest ever made, but who nevertheless became a Hollywood pariah who struggled to find finance for his own projects. One of the first film hyphenates: director-producer-writer-actor.
Because Citizen Kane revolutionised Hollywood movie-making. Because more people have cited Kane as the reason they decided to become film-makers, than any other movie. Because a handful of his films are amongst the most wondrous in world cinema. Because he introduced daring and cheek to the movies.
Citizen Kane is the keynote Welles film, famous for its approach to narrative story-telling, ground-breaking use of black and white photography and sound, and a cast predominantly of Welles’ friends from the theatre. These characteristics are true of many of his films, which include brilliant thrillers (The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil) and acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations (Macbeth, Othello, Chimes at Midnight). Almost as notable, were long-term projects which Welles failed to complete, notably Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, he was a child protegé gifted in painting, music and magic. Was acting on the stage, first in Ireland then New York, while still a teenager. After successful careers in theatre and radio he arrived in Hollywood in 1940. Citizen Kane opened a year later, when he was 26. His most prolific period as director was the Forties and Fifties: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr Arkadin, Touch of Evil. He completed just three films in the Sixties, including one of his greatest, Chimes at Midnight. But he continued to work up until his death in 1985, often with huge gaps in shooting while he raised finances by acting in other people’s films. He was also prolific on television, both as director, actor and narrator.
Welles was a master at collaboration – encouraging those around him to their best work. His most influential partnership was with cinematographer Gregg Toland, who helped to create the look of Citizen Kane, and famously told the fledgling director that he could teach him all he needed to know about film-making in a weekend. His collaboration with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz on Kane was less happy, leading to protracted claims that Welles’ joint-credit was undeserved; ironically, the film’s only Oscar was for best screenplay. Welles often used actors from his Mercury Theatre company, including Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorhead and Everett Sloane.

With wife Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.

Married to the Hollywood actress and Forces sweetheart Rita Hayworth (1943-48); the last rites of that troubled liaison were administered on screen, when the pair starred opposite each other in The Lady from Shanghai. His first wife was a teenage sweetheart, Virginia Nicholson, his third the Italian Countess di Girfalco, Paola Mori. Also dated sultry singer and sometime actress Eartha Kitt.
That Welles is the man who rewrote the book on movie-making, before hubris, bad luck and the jealousy of studio chiefs denied him the oeuvre that his considerable talents deserved. That his narrative techniques changed the way Hollywood stories would be told, while his bravura use of images and sound inspired directors in decades to come. That Kane is a masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons a near masterpiece that suffered at the Studio’s hands, and Chimes at Midnight one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations. That the three-minute crane shot at the opening of Touch of Evil has had film-makers and buffs drooling ever since. A charismatic, if sometimes hammy actor, who hired himself out to dozens of mediocre projects in a struggle to finance his own. Possibly a genius, certainly brilliant.


Citizen Kane (1941)
Welles, the great showman from radio and the theatre, came to Hollywood a novice and, in the spirit of an inspired amateur, struck gold at his first attempt. Despite claims and counter-claims about the film’s authorship, the likely truth is that Herman Mankiewicz produced the first draft, American, based on the life and times of the yellow press baron William Randolph Hearst; Welles then worked on Mankiewicz’s draft, creating a final script with his own stamp on it. The director coaxed the best out of collaborators who had been waiting for such an opportunity – not just Gregg Toland, but editors, special effects people, set designers, make-up artists. When Kane says to his beleaguered guardian, “I don’t know how to run a newspaper Mr Thatcher, I just try everything I can think of”, it could be Welles speaking of himself as director.
The story of the rise and fall of the idealistic millionaire and newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane, the film features a charismatic star turn from Welles, alongside the actors from his Mercury Theatre. Citizen Kane is full of memorable sequences and images: the March of Time newsreel, the snowy globe rolling from Kane’s hand, the breakfast montage depicting the breakdown of his first marriage, the vertiginous crane shot in the opera house, the cavernous interiors of Xanadu, the final revelation of Rosebud. Throughout, the use of deep focus, expressionistic lighting, long takes, crazed angles combining with the ‘real’ ceilings of the interiors, all served to underline a story of megalomania, delusion and the American Dream gone sour. Alongside the visuals, Welles’ and Mankiewicz’s narrative coup de grace – revealing Kane through the fragmented memories of his friends and colleagues – transforms a fairly straightforward story into something murky and mythic.
Sadly the script’s fidelity to Hearst’s own life and its scurrilous depiction of his illicit relationship with actress Marion Davies, was the film’s undoing. Hearst’s minions put pressure not just on RKO, which produced Kane, but the whole of Hollywood to suppress the movie, which it pretty much did. Despite the excellent critical reception, Kane played in only one cinema chain, and then for only a few months. It was nominated for nine Oscars, but won just one – for best screenplay.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Truffaut calls Welles’ second film “a mutilated masterpiece” – suggesting the quality of the film despite the savage re-editing meted out by RKO (while Welles was shooting a documentary in Brazil). While employing all the technical tricks and panache of Kane, this is a gentler film, nostalgic and moving. A faithful adaptation of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Booth Tarkington, it charts the glory of the eponymous Ambersons, and their subsequent demise as the industrial age – epitomised by the motor car – transforms their town. The family’s snobbery and narrow-mindedness doesn’t help. Fine performances by Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorhead.
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
A superior film noir. Orson himself stars as Michael O’Hara, the sailor who falls for the mysterious wife of a rich, famous and crippled attorney, agrees to work on their luxury yacht and ends up framed for murder. The film is a treat to the eye – not only because of the sumptuous black and white photography, the thrill of the pacy editing or the sheer brilliance of the hall of mirrors sequence, but also because Welles’ camera is as much in love with Rita Hayworth as Godard’s was with Anna Karina. Hair dyed blonde, often passive and silent, Hayworth gives one of cinema’s most inscrutable and beautiful femmes fatale. Welles was married to her at the time and the film’s cynical (some say misogynist) treatment of Hayworth’s character probably reflects the fact that the marriage was on the wane. Everett Sloane, so lovable as Kane’s manager, Bernstein, is persuasively odious as the cuckolded husband.
Othello (1952)/Chimes at Midnight (1966)
A devotee of Shakespeare from an early age, Welles’ first glimpse of serious fame came courtesy of his all-black Macbeth, in Harlem. He continued to adapt the bard on screen, the best results being in these two films. Othello, with Welles in the lead, was made on the hoof over four years in Morocco and Italy, with next to no budget. It doesn’t suffer for that, coming in at a lean, mean and stunningly-photographed 90 minutes. Chimes at Midnight condenses four of Shakespeare’s history plays, repositioning Falstaff as the focus of attention. Falstaff’s tragedy is brilliantly, poignantly acted by Welles, while some of the scenes (including an extraordinary battle) are counted amongst his best work.
Gregg Toland, whose previous work included films with Ford and Wyler (including an Oscar for Wuthering Heights) and who taught Welles from scratch about shooting movies. Although the two worked together on just one film, TolandÕs existing style – which had absorbed elements of German Expressionism – suited Welles’ inclinations, and the results were to be seen throughout the director’s subsequent pictures.

The Third Man

Carol Reed’s The Third Man featured Welles in a cameo, but it might as well have been a Welles production. The camerawork (all quirky angles and deep shadow) and the world-weariness of the storyline owed as much to Welles as to Reed or author Graham Greene; in fact, it was Welles who wrote the most memorable lines from the film – Lime’s immortal “cuckoo clock” speech atop the big wheel. And with Welles and Joseph Cotton sizing up against each other, it felt like a Citizen Kane reunion. Robert Altman’s use of sound owes much to Welles, while the crane shot at the start of The Player is an homage to Touch of Evil.
“[Citizen Kane] is more fun than any other film masterpiece I know.” Pauline Kael.
“The picture [Kane] was about William Randolph Hearst, but the picture was also about Orson.” John Houseman.
“Before or since, no one in Hollywood has carved out such freedom for himself, and then used it to initiate a chorus of damnation, mistrust, and rumour that would reliably hinder him from a lasting commercial career.” David Thomson.
“He inhaled legend – and changed our air. It is the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.” Thomson.
“There but for the grace of God, goes God.” Herman Mankiewicz.
“The one key element we learned from Welles was the power of ambition. In a sense, he is responsible for inspiring more people to be film directors than anyone else in the history of the cinema.” Martin Scorsese.
“I started at the top and worked down.”
“I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do or the imagination could do…. so anything I could think up in my dreams I attempted to photograph.”
Trying to claim sole authorship of Citizen Kane (refuted); not trying hard enough to woo Hollywood’s powerful studio heads – thus signing his own death warrant in LA; making too many films and TV shows that were simply beneath him.
Turning “Hollywood” into “art”. Inspiring generations of maverick directors, notably in the 1970s. Innovation, brilliance, charm.
When Welles was just 23, Time Magazine dubbed him “the marvellous boy”.
Welles’ early fame included being the voice of The Shadow on the radio.
His radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds was presented as a “real” news broadcast and terrified gullible Americans, who thought that Martians really had landed.
RKO gave Welles complete carte blanche to make Citizen Kane. Studio chiefs were not even allowed to watch rushes. This was the first, arguably only time a director has had such such total control.
At the outset of Kane, Welles asked an RKO researcher to supply him with information on how films were actually made.
Pauline Kael’s essay Raising Kane started the controversy over the authorship of Citizen Kane. She claimed it was all Mankiewicz’s work, chief among her evidence being a statement by the writer’s secretary that Welles had not dictated a single line to her. Welles’ secretary understandably pointed out that he dictated his script, to her.
MGM’s Louis B Mayer led a consortium of movie moguls, fearful of reprisals from Hearst over Kane, which attempted to buy the negative from RKO – to destroy it. RKO refused.
Other than his own films, he had acclaimed roles in, among others, The Third Man, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, A Man for All Seasons, Catch-22. He enjoyed employing false noses and other outlandish make-up devices.
He always kept up his membership of the Magicians’ Union and regularly practised his sleight of hand magic tricks.
Charles Foster Kane.

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